Furious visitors to the new £27 million Stonehenge visitor centre have criticised English Heritage for ‘chaotic scenes’ as the venue struggles to cope with the number of people attending.
Staff and volunteers at the new centre, which opened just three weeks ago, have also voiced their concerns at how it is coping with thousands of visitors every day.
Angry visitors have taken to travel review websites such as TripAdvisor to complain of a host of logistical problems surrounding the operation of the new facility – in particular the ticketing and transportation from the centre to the stones and back again.
Many have complained of queues of more than an hour to board a ‘land train’ – three carriages pulled by a Land Rover – which carries around 45 people at a time and takes ten minutes to travel the mile-and-a-half from the centre at Airmen’s Corner to Stonehenge.
With just two land trains operating, English Heritage has been forced to lay on extra regular coaches, hired from local bus companies, to deal with numbers, and visitors labelling the system ‘a farce’ have questioned how the centre and its transport arrangements will cope when thousands visit a day during the busy summer months.
Last night English Heritage admitted there have been ‘some issues’ and asked tourists to be patient while they solve the problems.
Before the new visitors centre opened, visitor ratings on the TripAdvisor website were consistently good for Stonehenge, even though the 1960s visitors centre was deemed ‘a national disgrace’ by senior politicians. Around three-quarters of people posting reviews of their own experiences on the website rated it positively, with four or five stars, while only eight per cent gave it one or two stars.
Since the centre opened, positive reviews have plunged to 46 per cent, and negative reviews jumped to a third, with even those giving Stonehenge a good overall score complaining of the chaos surrounding accessing the stones.
One reviewer, ‘Paco G’, from Spain, said: “There are two Land Rovers towing some wagons and some mini-buses that mysteriously are stopped half of the time,” he said. “People were getting angry after one and a half hours of queuing.”
Others told English Heritage to ‘learn from Disney’ on how to manage crowds, while more slated the price rise for tickets from around £8 to £14.95 for an adult.
Staff and volunteers have also spoken of their frustrations at the new system. One volunteer, who declined to be named, said it was immediately obvious the centre would not be able to cope with the numbers of people visiting.
“The problem is the transport, getting people to and from the stones,” he said. “They have abandoned the idea of only using the Land Trains, we’ve got coaches now, which kind of defeats the object. Also, when it’s windy or raining, those in the ticket office can’t open the windows to serve people because the rain blows in, it’s been built facing the wrong direction,” he added.
Last night, Stonehenge’s general manager, Kate Davies, played down the fiercely negative reviews of the new centre, and asked people to be patient. She said English Heritage have been surprised by the numbers of people visiting the stones in the first few weeks.
“There has been huge interest in Stonehenge since the new visitor centre opened towards the end of December. On one day alone we welcomed 5,000 visitors which is along the same levels as during our peak summer season,” she said.
“This is a brand new operation, on a completely different scale to the old visitor centre, and naturally during these early days, there have been some issues. But we are solving them, we have increased our shuttle service taking people to the stones and from 1 February, our timed ticketing system will swing into place.
“The majority of feedback has been overwhelmingly positive; visitors have been fascinated by our new exhibition and love the sense that the stones are now reconnected with the wider landscape. We appreciate all the feedback we've received and we would ask people to be patient while we iron out the few remaining issues,” she added.
The view of our reporter, Tristan Cork
Stonehenge’s new visitors’ centre is a work of art, sympathetically designed like a little copse of trees and sheds, unobtrusively a mile-and-a-half from the stones themselves.
And therein lies the problem. The old concrete bunker was rightly maligned, but it was right next to the stones. That meant pretty much anyone could pitch up and wander in. Now the efforts to return Stonehenge to its natural landscape mean a Disney-esque land train ride which trundles down the now-closed road.
Yesterday, on a grey and drizzly January afternoon, there was little sign of the horrendous queues for this transport that have caused such a flood of complaints. But – and here’s the big but – yesterday Stonehenge seemed quiet, there were barely a couple of hundred people in total at the stones, on the transport or at the visitors’ centre, at any one time and yet everything was full or close to it: all the seats in the café were taken, we didn’t have to wait more than ten minutes for the Land Train but we were jam-packed on board.
Yesterday, the visitors’ centre and transport were operating nicely – but how it stands up to four times as many people remains to be seen. English Heritage need to learn lessons quickly and invest in proper resources, or the complaints will continue.
Next month they begin a timed ticket system, rather like the London Eye, which in busy periods will effectively end the ability people have now to rock up without booking.
Such a change in the way people have accessed the nation’s most iconic landmark will take some getting used to.
Read what the visitors think, by